Fed judge rules Willow Project can move forward as environmental groups' lawsuits proceed

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

ALASKA -- A federal judge in Alaska has declined to block progress on the controversial Willow oil drilling project while lawsuits against the project proceed.

The Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips' massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska's North Slope last month. The project galvanized a groundswell of online opposition in the weeks leading up to the Biden administration approving it, including more than 1 million letters written to the White House protesting the project and a Change.org petition with more than 5 million signatures.

Shortly after the Biden administration approved the project, environmental law group Earthjustice and law firm Trustees for Alaska filed the complaints against the Interior Department and its top officials, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies.

The lawsuits requested that the judge grant a preliminary injunction on the project as the court considered the cases, which would have halted construction.

On Monday, federal Judge Sharon Gleason of the US District Court of Alaska ruled in favor of the federal government and oil company ConocoPhillips in allowing the construction of the project to continue as the court process plays out, noting that the activities planned for the coming months -- the construction of the site and infrastructure around it -- "do not include the extraction of any oil and gas."

"With this decision from the federal district court, we are able to immediately begin construction activities," a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said in a statement. "We appreciate the support from the intervening parties and others who recognize that Willow will provide meaningful opportunities for Alaska Native communities and the State of Alaska, and domestic energy for America."

In their lawsuit, environmental groups argue the Biden administration's environmental analysis, which concluded the project won't have a major impact on the environment or the climate crisis, is flawed and violates federal law.

The lawsuits tie the project's potential climate effects to threatened species, including polar bears, that reside in the region where the Willow Project would be constructed. Earthjustice lawyers wrote that the Endangered Species Act consultations underlying Willow's approval "are unlawful, because they fail to consider the impact of carbon emissions on threatened species."

Federal agencies "failed to consider how the increased greenhouse gas emissions from Willow may affect the survival and recovery of these ice-dependent species or their critical habitat," the lawyers wrote.

But in the short-term, Gleason concluded that the potential environmental harm of the construction phase of the project does not outweigh the harm -- economic and otherwise -- that could be inflicted if a preliminary injunction was granted.

"The Court has further determined that Plaintiffs have not established that irreparable injury to their members is likely if Winter 2023 Construction Activities proceed," Gleason wrote in Monday's decision.

Erik Grafe, the deputy managing attorney in Earthjustice's Alaska regional office, said in a statement that while this wasn't the outcome they had hoped for, "our court battle continues."

"We will do everything within our power to protect the climate, wildlife, and people from this dangerous carbon bomb," Grafe said. "Climate scientists have warned that we have less than seven years to get it right on climate change, and we cannot afford to lock in three decades of oil drilling that will only serve to open the door to more fossil-fuel extraction."

ConocoPhillips and the federal government have argued the environmental analysis federal officials conducted showed the decades-long oil project wouldn't do serious climate and environmental damage.

The area where the project is planned holds up to 600 million barrels of oil. That oil would take years to reach the market since the project has yet to be constructed. The Biden administration's own environmental analysis concluded the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year -- equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.

Environmental groups have previously succeeded in arguing against the Willow Project in front of the judge assigned to this case. In 2021, Gleason vacated ConocoPhillips' federal Willow permits, saying the environmental review conducted by the Trump administration for the project failed to consider key climate and environmental impacts to wildlife in the area.

Gleason at the time said the Trump administration review did not include enough analysis on the project's potential planet-warming emissions and left out details on the project's possible effect on polar bears.

Even though some indigenous groups vehemently opposed the project due to environmental and health concerns, the project also had support among Alaska Natives who said it would deliver jobs and tax revenue to the remote region.